Just over a decade ago, Boston launched its rollout of a food truck program that had just over a dozen vendors participating. Other cities have demonstrated the popularity of food trucks before Boston jumped in. What started with that small number of vendors grew to over 70 potential vendors participating in the lottery for spaces in Boston within a few years. Places like the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the SoWa Market in Boston became additional outlets for food entrepreneurs to vend.
It gave some chefs a chance to try a proof of concept, even without the funds needed for a full scale brick and mortar. People were out there selling, cupcakes, burgers, loco moco, ribs, pork buns, vegan tacos, seafood, extravagant grilled cheese, duck tongue tacos, frito pies, shawarma,porchetta, and I’ll stop there. There was a wildly successful Food Truck Throwdown of Boston vs NYC food trucks on the Greenway.
Many were successful enough to go on and open brick and mortar restaurants — Mei Mei, Roxy’s Grilled CHeese, Stoked Pizza, Pennypackers, Taco Party, The Dining Car, Chicken & Rice Guys, M&M Ribs, Cookie Monstah. Avi Shemtov started with the Chubby Chickpea food truck and has opened several sit down restaurants. I’m sure I forgot some.
The important thing is that, at its peak, food trucks were economically beneficial, exposed people to a variety of cuisines and brought people out to the streets. In some ways, there was success almost in spite of a lot of factors. Rules and regulations from the city were always clunky at best. Good vending spots like the Greenway and SoWa were expensive. And just because you were licensed for Boston, you had to go through whatever rules other towns had, to vend in other locations.
While there was promise and commitment when the program started under Mayor Menino, it was largely ignored by Mayor Walsh. Based on what I see now, there has not been much engagement by Mayor Wu either. The City has a Twitter account for the food truck office @COBfoodtrucks, that has not tweeted in 5 years.
The pandemic really hurt the business, no doubt. People were all remote and not in the city. Some vendors hung in, able to survive on catering gigs, events and brewery setups. But it sure seems people are back, but the food trucks are not. If I look at the city of Boston schedule, I only see about 15 trucks on the streets. I see locations that used to be popular — gone. City Hall Plaza used to have 3 trucks daily, now it’s 1.
In the first years of the Boston food truck scene, I had a website, Hub Food Trucks, that was pretty popular. I gave it up when I was not in Boston much, so really couldn’t stay as in tune as I wanted to be. But I always look forward to when I am in town, to try and grab lunch at a truck. That has become increasingly difficult with the reduced city schedule and far fewer trucks on the Greenway. I was excited to be in town last week and said, great, I’ll stop in Dewey Square on my way out, get lunch and hit the farmers market.
When I got there, my heart sank. One truck and one produce vendor. For all the reasons I talked about above, all the good things, we know what a thriving food truck program looks like. But the fact is, to get back there will require, will demand that the City of Boston take an active role in this. It requires places like the Greenway and SoWa to to both attract people and trucks back.
Food brings people together. Food trucks give people a chance to start a business, expose a community to new food and get them out of homes or offices. They pay taxes, they grow, they add jobs. Much attention and deservedly so has been on helping restaurants coming out of the pandemic. But that great niche our food trucks had should be built back up also.